Meetings & Written Narratives

At SumUp we prefer written narratives over presentations when we meet, and don’t mind the up to 20 minutes at the beginning of a meeting spent reading together in silence. What lies behind this part of our operating system and how do we best write such narratives? 

Written Narratives: The Why  

The book Working Backwards by Bryar & Carr and similar writings have popularised the notion of replacing slide decks/presentations with written narratives. 

Written Narratives, as the name suggests, are documents with a well-constructed commentary that coherently communicates all the information relevant to a topic. It is typically up to six pages in length. They go hand-in-hand with the technique of ‘silent meetings’ where the first 10-20 minutes of a meeting are spent by all participants silently reading the document. This is then followed by a discussion.  

Replacing slide decks with Written Narratives in some contexts is very efficient, because:

  1. The act of constructing a narrative forces the writer to think clearly and coherently, and spot the gaps in their own argument. Thus, it refines and improves the quality of our thinking over time.    

  2. Narratives are self-sufficient and can be understood without the voice-over of the presenter. Anyone can read it afterward and still comprehend what it meant to convey.  

  3. It removes the presentation style/ability of the presenter as a factor, thus creating a level-playing field for the strongest ideas, rather than the strongest presenters, to prevail. 

  4. Written Narratives save time. Slide decks, by their very nature, make for a gradual/sequential unveiling of information. In a meeting of people with varied levels of topic awareness, the sequential unveiling of information can lead to the audience getting impatient or asking questions out of sequence. As a result, the whole conversation could sometimes jump ahead, sometimes backtrack, or sometimes go down a rabbit hole!

  5. The discussion that ensues after everyone has read the Narrative is generally of a higher quality. Everyone has the same information and has had the time to digest it fully. 

In short, pre-reads often end up as never-reads, while narratives are right-now-reads. So, they work!  

The When

Written Narratives are best whenever there is a meeting of many participants needing to review complex information. Thus, it is very well-suited to product, workstream, or business reviews (including board meetings), ad-hoc problem solving meetings and planning updates. 

Slide decks are extremely valid and useful in certain contexts – when storytelling for effect (e.g. in a keynote speech, or all-hands presentations), or when the situation demands gradual, sequential delivery of information with audience interaction (e.g. training/knowledge-sharing sessions). 

So, Narratives do not replace all forms of communication. If in doubt about using Narratives, ask yourself whether your information is best shared in sequential, interactive steps. If the answer is a no, then a narrative may be the best option. 

The How 

The most famous example of using written narratives and silent meetings comes from Amazon. For those of us who like to go to the source, here is an example of a 6-pager written by Jesse Freeman, an ex-Amazon technical marketer. This is the Medium post where he deconstructs the best practices in use during his time at Amazon. 

However, we do not suggest following this example lock, stock & barrel. Many ex-Amazon folk have refined the 6-pager approach as they progress in their careers. Other companies have also adapted and improved Narratives over the years. 

Written Narratives in SumUp

Written narratives in SumUp is a flexible tool and should reflect what needs to be conveyed in the specific meeting. The focus of the document should always be on communicating a narrative. To ensure that we get the most value from Written Narratives, here are some ground rules on how we use them in SumUp:

  • (In most cases) It is preferable not to share the document as a pre-read. Instead, time should be dedicated in the meeting for everyone to read it simultaneously. The discussion will be more meaningful when all participants have spent roughly similar time/attention in understanding the topic. 

  • It is preferable for individuals not to comment on the document while they read it in a meeting. Instead, they should note down their comments and raise them in the discussion. If any comments are not resolved in the discussion (or it is an input that the author can use to make the document better), these should be added afterward. If the document is distributed for asynchronous reading outside of a silent meeting, this rule on commenting does not apply, obviously!

IMPORTANT: Weave narratives, not rugs!

A rug is often colourful, with complex patterns, and is full of rich ‘information’. They also present all the information to the viewer on the same level.

When we are working on complex projects and know so much detail, it can be very tempting to lay out all the information as if weaving a rug. Laying out all of the complex information (without creating a structure/logic of hierarchy) increases cognitive load, muddies vital points, and wastes time in discussing minutiae. Weaving a narrative means holding a certain level of detail back for clarity. Questions from the audience will guide you to relevant details – where it’s relevant, they will ask.  

Writing a good narrative calls for the art of executive summarisation, focusing on communicating the most vital and relevant aspects of any topic. You should clearly signal the areas with complex details and link to supporting documents*, so those who wish to dive deep can do so. This approach removes information from the top level, thus creating focus and clarity on the important elements. 

*It is recommended that all linked documents should be the actual working documents (e.g. confluence pages for the project, meeting minutes, etc), rather than the team having to write additional supporting content just to link to the Narrative! 

Continuous improvement 

Writing is an acquired skill. The better we become at writing, the easier it becomes to communicate our ideas and have focused conversations about what matters most. In a company as diverse as SumUp, it is normal that not everybody writes equally well. We should all work on continuously improving our writing skills. One of the easiest ways to do that is by reading quality content. Another way is to ask team members whose writing style you admire to review and edit your drafts (this is dual-purpose: their feedback improves the communication you’re working on and provides you with continual writing inspiration).